The Great Hall of American Wonders Opens Today at American Art

A new show looks at the growth of science and technology in the 19th century, as a new nation embraced the transformative power of American ingenuity

The Artist in His Museum, Charles Willson Peale, 1822
The Artist in His Museum, Charles Willson Peale, 1822 Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison Jr. Collection)

Nobody knows how to throw a dinner party better than the 19th-century Renaissance man Charles Willson Peale.

Peale, a scholar, an artist, an inventor, a dentist, a doctor, a poet, a naturalist (you name it, he did it) held a party in 1802 on a chilly February night in Philadelphia. It was a fine affair. Notable for one dramatic detail, Peale’s friends and family sat graciously at table, sipping wine and laughing, inside the belly of a mastodon skeleton.

Today, a new exhibition entitled, “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” opens at the American Art Museum and two paintings by Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon and The Artist in His Museum, make their Washington, D.C. debut. Apparently, at least one of the lenders of these iconic works was hard pressed to release it to the Smithsonian Institution. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia initially told the curator that it couldn’t possibly part with its portrait of Peale. Too special, they said. But fortunately for the show, it did.

Peale plays a pivotal role in the complex story that curator Claire Perry, formerly of Stanford University and now an independent scholar of 19th-century American culture, is telling. On view are some 160 objects that include paintings and drawings, sculptures, prints, survey photographs, zoological and botanical illustrations. And, most unusual for an art museum—some half dozen, or so, patent models that pay homage to the museum’s building, once home to the original U.S. Patent Office. All of which, the curator employs to document the tale of how a young nation took up the Great Experiment in democracy and came to see ingenuity as its most important asset.

“Perry paints a picture of the early United States in psychic distress as the Founding Fathers died and left common citizens to carry forward our Great Experiment in democratic self-government,” writes the museum’s director Elizabeth Broun in the exhibition book of the same title. “There was quite simply, no model to follow, no book of instructions on how to mold a disorganized rabble into a citizenry.”

“Americans believed,” said Perry at a press preview earlier this week, “that the people of the United States shared a genius for invention.” Peale’s dinner party is emblematic of the kind of seat-of-the-pants, free-wheeling spirit that emboldened the nation as it pursued the sciences with unprecedented zeal. Everyday citizens crowded lecture halls and devoted themselves to the sciences. Inventors applied for hundreds of thousands of patents. And artists and photographers and illustrators began to document the country’s seemingly endless bounty.

So that night, Peale’s guests raised their glasses and toasted the occasion. Perry imagines, how the host’s guests, sitting in the glowing candle light, must have marveled at the shifting shadows on the wall of the great mastodon’s tusks. And Peale likely delighted his visitors with the dramatic story of how he had come to extricate the fossil bones of the great Pleistocene beast from the watery mud of a bog on the property of a New York farmer.  “The assembled well-wishers raised their glasses and sang ‘Yankee Doodle’ to toast Peale’s triumph in bringing the skeleton of the renowned mastodon to his museum in Philadelphia,” Perry wrote.

Peale’s painting includes about 70 people, many of them are members of his family, including his son the painter Rembrandt Peale. It depicts the gigantic contraption that Charles Willson Peale invented to pump water from the pit. One central figure holds up one of the fossil bones amidst a host of vigorous laborers. Peale is telling us, Perry says, that “work is heroic.” The young boys, inside of the wheel all pulling together as if in harmony is Peale’s message to his fellow countrymen that everyone must work at nation building together. The skeleton became the centerpiece of Peale’s Philadelphia museum, depicted in the self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum. Here, the artist portrays the fossils and taxidermic specimens, the arts, the mechanical marvels, all of which, both in the painting and in real life, Peale dedicated to the citizens of the United States to inspire them and “to equip them for the state-making tasks ahead,” according to Perry.

The exhibit is organized around archetypical inventions of the era—the gun, the clock and the railroad, as well as the natural themes of big trees, Niagara Falls and the buffalo. Perry says she had spent hours

Exhumation of the Mastodon

Exhumation of the Mastodon. Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore City Life Collections.

searching through 19th-century works of art and began to see a trend or a pattern to the images in what she called “a mashup of art, science and technology.”

The gun that Annie Oakley clutches in Richard K. Fox’s 1899 photo mirrors the young soldier’s grasp in Winslow Homer’s 1862 The Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty.

The Great Plains are first depicted with vast herds of buffalo only to meet their ultimate destiny in Albert Bierstadt’s 1888 The Last of the Buffalo. Niagara Falls (don’t miss George Catlin’s Bird’s Eye View) glories in multiple depictions, as does the giant sequoia, including everybody’s favorite iconic monster tree, the gateway Wawona tree in Yosemite.

Gorgeous clocks showcased throughout the galleries recall the standardization of America’s railroads, represented not only by works like Andrew Joseph Russell’s 1869 East and West Shaking Hands at the Laying of the Last Rail, but also by the “Golden Spike” or the last spike that Leland Stanford ceremoniously drove into final rails of the Transcontinental Railroad.

“That was a real treat,” says Perry of the loan from Stanford University of the brilliantly gold spike that glows inside a museum vitrine. “It involved some begging, but Stanford in the end was really happy to see it on view at the Smithsonian.”

The show is really two shows in one. The works of art are complimented by the patent models, the guns—including one owned by Wild Bill Hickok, the books—including John James Audubon’s journal, even Thomas Alva Edison’s light bulb. Curator Perry says the show’s crazy quilt pattern of artifacts and art, tells the story of how the United States emerged as a hall of wonders, a showcase of natural abundance, freedom and ingenuity.  “A democratic nation is also a work of art,” she says.

The Great American Hall of Wonders is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Jan. 8, 2012. View a gallery of works from the exhibit here.

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